September 2012

Greer Mansfield


WE WILL CONVERT THE KING IF POSSIBLE: The Greatness of Little Magazines

After getting one's fill of cat pictures, Pavlovian political commentary, and solemn reflection on reality TV shows, it might be worth checking out the Modernist Journals Project, certainly one of the more intriguing literary sites on the great big Web.

Since 1995, Brown University has been building a digital library of periodicals associated with the Modernist era -- the exact dates they observe are journals published from 1890 to 1922. The University of Tulsa joined the project in 2003, and the result is a site where you can read complete issues of fabled early 20th century magazines like BLAST, The English Review, The Little Review, The Egoist, and the original Harriet Monroe incarnation of Poetry.

Most of these journals are literary magazines of one sort or another, associated either with a particular movement or with an editor’s idiosyncratic vision. Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST was the vaudeville clarion of the short-lived “Vorticist” movement, while magazines like the English Review and the Little Review didn’t serve a movement so much as the wide-ranging taste of their editors (the great novelist Ford Madox Ford and the brilliant impresario Margaret Anderson, respectively).

Glancing at the list of contributors for magazines like The Egoist and the Little Review, one notices a fair bit of overlap. Names like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Wyndham Lewis, H.D., and Ford Madox Ford recur again and again. The omnipresent Ezra Pound served as “foreign editor” for both Poetry and the Little Review, literary editor for The Egoist, co-edited BLAST, and contributed to The English Review and The New Age (among others).

What is striking in these old Modernist magazines, aside from the roll call of their famous contributors? Mainly that they have very little in common with prominent literary magazines in today’s English-speaking world. There is no gee-whiz tweeness (surely you can find your own examples without too much trouble), no senile genteelism (ditto), no forced jokiness, no desperation on the part of the authors to prove that they’re good guys and gals who aren’t necessarily smarter than anyone else and maybe want to be your best friend.

Which doesn’t mean that a magazine like BLAST isn’t very funny. It ran for only two issues, published about a year apart; the first bears a bright pink cover (Pound: “the great MAGENTA cover'd opusculus”) and opens with a series of bold-print, mostly all-CAPS tirades. Lewis and Pound “BLAST” things that they hate: the “flabby” English climate, “PARISIAN PAROCHIALISM,” the years 1837 to 1900, and the Post Office, among many other examples (including, for some reason, Captain Cook).

The next few pages are a series of blessings, in which Pound and Lewis “BLESS” things like English ships, “ALL PORTS,” the Salvation Army, and the Pope.

The nations of England and France are both blasted and blessed. In their blessing of England, Pound and Lewis write:

It is the great barbarous weapon
of the genius among races.

BLESS SWIFT for his solemn bleak
wisdom of laughter

BLESS SHAKESPEARE for his bitter Northern
Rhetoric of humour

And the qualities of France that they bless include:

MASTERLY PORNOGRAPHY (great enemy of progress)

All of this is good fun, but does BLAST offer anything to justify the capital letters bluster? It does. The Vorticist manifesto is full of strange, startlingly perceptive thoughts. The point isn’t to agree with every hyperbolic word Pound and Lewis write, but to be set thinking by sentences like “The English Character is based on the Sea.” Or

After the good-humored delirium of the opening pages, BLAST proceeds to some poems by Pound. The poems aren’t Pound at his luminous best, nor even mid-quality Pound. In fact, they’re Pound at his monomaniacal worst:

Come, let us on at the new deal
Let us be done with Jews and Jobbery
Let us SPIT upon those who fawn on the JEWS for their money,
Let us out to the pastures.

Not exactly a barrel of laughs (especially dismal because that’s how Pound intended these poems). Pressing on, however, one finds a play by Lewis called “Enemy of the Stars” (stage direction: “VERY WELL-ACTED BY YOU AND ME”), artwork and designs by Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and a story by Rebecca West. The magazine’s greatest coup, though, was its publication of an excerpt from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, which appeared in BLAST as “The Saddest Story.”

Ford was a writer of panoramic-but-subtle novels and vivid historical romances, as well as some excellent, underappreciated poetry. Born Ford Madox Hueffer, as a child he sat at the knee of his grandfather, the pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown, and got used to visits from Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, the Rossettis, William Morris, and Ivan Turgenev. The connection with Turgenev must have had a strong effect, as Ford’s novels are close to psychological/civilizational studies like A Sportsman’s Sketches and Fathers and Sons, works that trace the correspondences between personal relationships (love affairs, families, an aristocratic hunter’s relationship with his serfs and with nature) and wider social currents. In novels like The Good Soldier and the epic tetralogy Parade’s End, Ford paints a vision of European social cataclysms (above all, the First World War) mirrored in the anguish and the betrayals of married couples. All of these novels are written in a style unusually vivid, fully imagined, and abundant with insights.

Ford also happened to be a brilliant editor and literary promoter. In some ways he was as great a confluence of writers and artists as Ezra Pound. He was a close friend of Joseph Conrad; he even co-wrote some novels with him, and was probably a decisive influence on Conrad becoming the master he was. As Kenneth Rexroth said, thanks to Ford “Conrad’s novels acquired a profundity of motivation and a complexity of architecture which changed him from a deep Kipling to a peer of Flaubert and Turgenev.”

The first issue of his magazine, the English Review (December 1908), begins with a poem by Thomas Hardy and includes stories by Henry James, John Galsworthy, and even “Count Tolstoi.” In the same issue: the opening chapters of H.G. Wells’ s “romance of commerce” Tono-Bungay, and several pieces by Conrad (including a charming review of Anatole France’s great satire Penguin Island). None of these great names are associated with the Modernist movement, but Ford did publish poems by Pound, Lewis, and D.H. Lawrence in the English Review, and he later encouraged the careers of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.

The English Review was more a picture of the best fin-de-siecle English literature than of Modernism (Ford said he always wanted to publish Kipling, but couldn’t afford him), but Ford was unmistakably bent on cultural reformation in a way not unlike Lewis and Pound, though his approach was certainly different from BLAST’s near-adolescent bravado.

There is value in that bravado, however over-the-top it can be. The rhetorical aggression in BLAST is at one with its overall boldness and vision. Manifesto prose from the Modernist epoch can be tiresome (in the case of the Futurists and some of Pound), but not nearly as much as the tepidness of most of today’s highly regarded lit-mags.

At one point in the Vorticist Manifesto, Pound and Lewis speak of “violent boredom” with certain aspects of their time and place’s literary culture. Violent boredom: a useful enough phrase, especially for describing how one (or I, me, forget the impersonal universal “one”) feels when scanning the pages of most “quality” online and print literary magazines. Not that the distinction between print and screen really exists anymore.

American book-chat culture today is, of course, a blur between print and online, between august upper-middlebrow institution and informal blog. I consider that a welcome development, but there’s a sameness of tone and style not just to most of the popular literary journals, but to most literary journalists and bloggers. Not just a sameness of tone and style, but a sameness of thought and taste and spirit.

There are only so many times you can read an essayist pat themselves on the back about being interested in both HIGH CULTURE and POP CULTURE, as if this hasn’t always been the case: William Hazlitt delighting in Indian jugglers, boxing matches, and magic lantern shows in between going to watch Edmund Kean play Macbeth and lecturing on Milton; Borges reviewing King Kong or the latest musical when not writing his dizzying essays and fictions, and on and on and on. There are only so many times you can read the same essay about Philip Larkin, and did you know he used the word “fuck,” etc, etc…the tedium makes one sob.

The Web, one would think, opens up all kinds of possibilities for imaginative typography or design a la BLAST, but adventurous publishing like that is rare. Why? The pageviews-for-cash, keywords-are-compulsory bottom line? Laziness? Dullness?

There’s something awfully parochial and small in all of this. The vision and ambition one finds in BLAST, the Little Review, The Egoist, or the English Review seems like it grew in the atmosphere of an entirely different planet.

I don’t believe that rebellion is the central or definitive value in art and literature. But it is worrying when there is no rebellion against the middlebrow culture-institutions at all, when the dearest ambition of every young writer is to be published by the New Yorker (and then?). What is destructive for imaginative literature here isn’t necessarily the lack of confrontation and rebellion; instead, it’s the lack of any alternative pathways, any notion of trying something significantly different from the mainstream magazine culture.

Perhaps what we need is a blast of BLAST’s hubris, or at least the sense of cultural mission possessed by Ford Madox Ford and Margaret Anderson.

As Lewis and Pound say in their crazed manifesto: